Angelina Jolie Still Breaks the Rules: Why ‘First They Killed My Father’ is the Movie No Studio Would Make https://t.co/40gDyGOQZF pic.twitter.com/ZQ19TgJVOV— Anne Thompson (@akstanwyck) September 18, 2017
IndieWire talked to Angelina Jolie about why choosing Netflix meant the only leeches she had to fight were real ones in Cambodia.
Angelina Jolie is basking in a standing ovation at Telluride after the first screening of “First They Killed My Father.” It’s the film she wanted to make: Based on the 2000 memoir of Loung Ung, who was five when the Khmer Rouge forced her family into work camps, it required a $24 million budget, a 60-day shoot, a two-hour, 16-minute cut. The only place she pitched the film is the only one who would let her make it: Netflix.
“She had a very specific view of the story she wanted to tell,” said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “It’s very traditional. It’s just as resource-intense to make a small film as a big film, where there isn’t much infrastructure in Cambodia. It would have been difficult to get made anywhere, with all local talent. It all pays off on the screen.”
While Jolie’s film may be traditional in some ways, it’s radical in many others. “Netflix said ‘yes,’ and good on Ted Sarandos,” said Jolie. They could have said, ‘Yes, but here are your restrictions: You have to do it in English, you have to ask someone who’s known from China to play her mother, you have to cut these things to make it a smaller number.'”
Here’s Jolie’s vision for the film, which became the biggest film ever shot in Cambodia and is now the country’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign-Language film. It will be hard to beat — and it could also serve as checklist of reasons why any studio would say, “No.”
1. The movie chooses truth over gloss.
Ung was 30 when she began talking to family members in Cambodia and researching “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” And 17 years ago, when Jolie visited Cambodia for the first time to shoot “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” she read Ung’s memoir and looked her up, sharing her desire to adopt a Cambodian child — who turned out to be her son Maddox. They have been close friends ever since.
Jolie and Ung worked on a script, whittling her story into a lean screenplay and looking for the visual details. Ung still cherishes the blue shirt in the film, the one article of clothing from her past that did not get dyed black. “The book is the film,” Jolie told me at Telluride. “The guide. I don’t feel like I made this as much as I just put the pieces together and brought people together. It’s grown into something we all made together. And Maddox is learning about his country for the first time.”
2. A young girl’s realistic and very uncomfortable perspective tells the story.
Jolie slowly takes us through each transition, showing it all from the perspective of wide-eyed young Loung Ung, who learns what it means to be unsafe and abused and starving. Along the way, she loses family members and trains to become a child soldier. And she is eventually separated from both of her parents and all but one sibling.
“They were on that road, and they just can’t get off that road,” Jolie said. “And their feet hurt and they want to get off that road and the audience wants to get off that road. You have to make them stay on that road and let them see how heavy that thing was that she was carrying.”
Agile Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s cameras take us close to Ung as she experiences what is going on around her. You see the flora and fauna, the beauty of nature, flowers and insects. On set, leeches were so commonplace in water scenes that everyone just flicked them off. And that’s a real giant fuzzy tarantula.
3. It’s a Cambodian movie.
Of course, Jolie has seen “The Killing Fields;” it’s one of her favorite films. But she “wanted to do something where the hero was Cambodian,” she said. “And I wanted it to be mine. And shot in Cambodia.”
Jolie loves directing because it lets her pursue subjects that she cares about, even though “the pressure of being the director and making sure it goes well for everybody can be really hard,” she said. “I also like the responsibility and I like to work hard and I hope I can be a good leader collaborating with great people.”
Also joining Jolie, who has been a Cambodian citizen for a decade, was Cambodian filmmaker and producer Rithy Panh, who directed foreign-language Oscar nominee “The Missing Picture.” His Rithy Bophana Prods. hired and supervised more than 500 Cambodian craftspeople and technicians, many of whom, like him, were survivors or children of survivors of the genocide. The film recruited more than 3,500 Cambodian background actors.
“It was very hard to get things brought in,” said Jolie, “the equipment and moving things around. Rithy never make me feel like he was looking over my shoulder. He was giving me what you would want, which is support.”
Ironically, given his history under the Khmer Rouge, Pan helped organize the Khmer Rouge soldiers on set. And Ung’s role was “taking care of everybody,” said Jolie, who juggled large battle sequences, stuntmen, explosions, and thousands of extras. “I was making sure everyone was safe first and foremost, for sure,” she said.
In one battle scene, the children are caught in the crossfire between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army, crouching in the river trying to find cover. “Mapping out a battle sequence that is going to be seen from one person’s point of view focuses you,” she said. “You can’t just shoot any shot that you feel is cool. You put yourself in a restricted position. We had to find a part of the river where she would be in the center of that, and figure out how things would move around her.”
4. The sound design is delicate, the soundtrack minimal.
The score by Marco Beltrami is neither manipulative nor overbearing. “I want to use it where I need to use it, and I like it to feel real,” Jolie said. “Because it’s the emotional point of view of a child. We needed to be her, absorbing things at the pace that she would be able to allow herself to be observant, so she looks directly at some things at the end, and that’s when it gets more horrific. This was a child’s mind that gets assaulted.”
Finally, Jolie wanted Netflix for its global outreach. “I feel this kind of film needs an audience,” she said. “I wanted to educate people, I wanted to do this for Cambodia. I didn’t want it to be that small thing that disappeared. It will reach over 100 countries. I appreciate there are times people want to see a movie together at home. Because it’s very emotional and it’s heavy and they have the option of watching it on their own time. What I felt was best was to really get this message out.”
Angelina Jolie on her gripping new film about the Cambodian genocide | Culture | The Times & The Sunday Times https://t.co/RH6GkOXIZP— Panh Rithy (@RPanh) September 18, 2017
Angelina Jolie on her gripping new film about the Cambodian genocide
The Hollywood actress tells the true story of a young girl’s survival under Pol Pot. She talks to Jon Swain, himself a witness to the killing fields, about making it real
The Sunday Times, September 17 2017, 12:01am
When Angelina Jolie first arrived in Cambodia 17 years ago, she knew little about the country’s tragic past. She was there to be filmed amid the fabled Angkor temples in scenes for the action-packed adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Something stopped the young actress turning her back on the country, however. It captivated her.
In the 1970s, the Vietnam War had spilled across Cambodia’s borders and the country was convulsed by civil war, accompanied by American bombing. What followed in 1975 was Pol Pot’s murderous revolution. He turned the clock back to Year Zero, telling the millions of Cambodians toiling in the giant labour camp their country had become: “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” His genocidal regime killed about 2m people, or a quarter of the population.
Jolie was smitten by the survivors’ brave struggle to recover and by Cambodia’s beauty. She returned again and again. She adopted a Cambodian orphan, her son Maddox, and became involved in humanitarian work: in recognition of that, by royal decree, she was made a Cambodian citizen.
Now the Oscar-winning actress has made a film about the genocide, as seen through the eyes of a little girl. First They Killed My Father is adapted from the bestselling book of that name by Loung Ung, who by the age of 10 had endured the killing of her mother and father, and the death of two sisters, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Through luck and her own resilience, she survived, and she and Jolie collaborated on the script.
Cambodia was a living hell. Doctors, professionals, even those with soft hands or spectacles that suggested they could read, were killed, and their executioners were often child soldiers. Pol Pot saw children such as Ung not as individuals, but as tiny vessels to be indoctrinated as a source of power. Even children’s laughter was forbidden.
This is not the first feature film to explore the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1984, Roland Joffé directed The Killing Fields, in which I am a character. But what distinguishes Jolie’s film and makes it so special is that she shot it in Cambodia, in the very place where so many people had suffered and died, using an all-Cambodian cast, many of whom were survivors or the children of survivors. The dialogue is also in the Cambodian language.
The film had its premiere earlier this year in Siem Reap. It was screened a few days later in the inner arena of the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, which I remember in the last weeks of the war as a casualty receiving centre, overflowing with the dead and dying as rockets crashed around.
I spoke to Jolie about it last week. As director, she said, she saw her role as shepherding the film and making it possible. But, ultimately, she believed it had to be made by the people of Cambodia themselves.
Cambodia has moved on a great deal in the past 40 years. Yet for many the genocide still looms over their lives, and the topic remains politically sensitive. Was the country ready for her film, and did Jolie ever doubt that it would work?
“Yes, I did,” she admitted. “I was not sure, and so we stepped very lightly. For some films, making and releasing them is the success. For this film, being able to make it — having the ability to make it, and the country agreeing to it — was the success.”
She said if the Cambodians had not responded and come forward to work on the film, and the local authorities and NGOs had not been willing to make it possible and give their support, she would not have been able to go ahead.
Its authenticity, she insisted, was not due to any talent of hers, but to her ability to listen. She let the Cambodians guide the film, from how a father might respond to his children to how the Khmer Rouge would behave in particular scenes. It was not her imagination informing it, but long, hard, painful conversations with people who had to recall what it was like.
“Everything we learnt to make the film was something we were learning about the country itself — where the scars had settled, why we would need therapists on set — because so many people had never talked about their experiences before,” she said.
“We were conscious we were in the very country, on the very ground, where people were hurt and buried, and that we were recreating those times and a very particular negative energy, which is palpable for Cambodians, given they have such a strong sense of the spirits.”
As a result, she said, nothing was more important than being respectful of the souls of those who had perished. “Before we put actors in Khmer Rouge uniforms, we would have spirit houses on set, and incense and traditional offerings.”
Having witnessed myself at first hand as a young journalist the Khmer Rouge’s brutal takeover of the country, I had wondered, too, whether the film could ever capture the atmosphere of those terrible times. I need not have worried. I think the film is remarkable for its authenticity. It is wrenching and sad and full of beauty and humanity, like the Cambodia I once knew.
People clapped and wept at the Phnom Penh screening. The old members of the audience saw themselves in it, and the young ones realised what their parents and grandparents had suffered; it was, for some, the first time they had talked to each other about the genocide. For, although the film is based on Ung’s story, it is the story of all Cambodian children and the parents who tried to protect them and keep them alive.
“It is Loung’s story, but survivors see it as their story, too, and it is wonderful that they see themselves in it,” Jolie said. “It has been accepted as a true story, but also as a fable to tell people what happened.”
The acclaimed film-maker Rithy Panh worked closely with Jolie as her co-producer. He, too, lost his family under Pol Pot, and his own films, most notably the award-winning documentary The Missing Picture, have shone a light on the genocide. Panh was keen to ensure that the film’s portrayal of the Khmer Rouge’s barbarity did not stamp out the country’s underlying humanity. Here and there, we see glorious lotus flowers blooming in the mud, symbols of hope amid the horror.
“Angelina is not someone who came to make a film about us,” Panh told me. “She came to make a film with us. She loves Cambodia sincerely, with humility. One thing I remember that stays with me. She asked me if I could build a small spirit house on set. Sometimes she would put incense, just as we do, to pay respect to the spirits and the souls at the location where we were shooting. She did it so naturally.”
Nobody will fail to be moved by the poignantly uplifting performance of Sreymoch Sareum, the little girl playing Ung. Coming from a simple family in the Phnom Penh suburbs, and seven at the time of filming, she is hardly as tall as the AK-47 rifle she is forced to carry, and has Ung’s cheeky resilience and independence.
Jolie said she gave so much more than anyone expected from such a young actor. “In the editing room, when I thought I would cut away to the point of view, I kept coming back to her. She is a very intelligent young girl, as well as a wonderful actor. You are drawn to her because you can see her mind working, and she is very present.”
“There was an affection between her and Angelina,” Panh said. “Angelina created an environment where she understood it was not reality, it was a film, so there was no confusion. We did not tell her to cry or not to cry. She decided herself, according to the environment we created for her. Angelina corrected a few things, but she never pushed her into performing something unnatural to her.”
The film provides an important lesson about Cambodia’s need for reconciliation with justice, not revenge. There is an incident in Ung’s book where a captured Khmer Rouge soldier is beaten to death by a vengeful crowd. In the film he is battered, but survives. The decision to change it was made in a group discussion between Ung, Jolie and Panh.
“We could not leave viewers with the feeling that Cambodians were vengeful people,” Jolie said. “There were acts of revenge, but they were minimal compared with the amount of forgiveness and moving forward that was shown.”
Killing the Khmer Rouge soldier would have been more dramatic in some respects on screen. But the three of them agreed that it would have been less true to Cambodia and did not fit in with the emotions of a child like Loung. “The suffering from this genocide is so great that it exceeds the desire for vengeance,” Panh said.
He disagreed profoundly with the German philosopher Theodor W Adorno’s controversial dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. “I say that after Auschwitz we need more poetry. For me that is the lesson of this film. It proves we Cambodians are capable of speaking and expressing ourselves about our history. At last we can talk and discuss what happened, and thereby begin a process of reconstruction of our identity.”
The genocide still casts a shadow. But it is fading with time. Watching Jolie’s film, I am reminded once again that the beauty of Cambodia lies almost everywhere, and most of all in the faces of its children who are the same age as Ung was 40 years ago. How heartwarming it is to see them playing and laughing together, unlike Ung and all those others whose childhood was stolen by genocide.
First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix
Watch @thathagengrrl & @franklinleonard's screenwriting panel from @TIFF_NET ft. FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER & more! https://t.co/lgnmh4bcT7— The Black List (@theblcklst) September 18, 2017